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‘Why does England give up on a liberal education at 16?’

Students in this country specialise too early in their schooling, writes a leading educationist. We have a lot to learn in this area from US universities

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Our model of secondary-school education came about almost by accident. In the 19th-century, elementary and secondary schooling ran in parallel, not in series. Which path you took, and when you left school, depended on your class (to say nothing of gender).

Secondary education expanded as population and prosperity increased, and a suburban middle class emerged, for whom existing public schools were inadequate or inaccessible. But with every new secondary school established, the traditional curriculum based on the public schools was reaffirmed.

Once elementary education became the concern of the state, alternative models of secondary education could be explored. The School Board for London tried to extend elementary schooling beyond age 11, in Higher Elementary Schools, bringing them into conflict with traditional secondary schools. So they were throttled, and education authorities were forbidden from using ratepayers’ money for such purposes. And so it goes on. Alternatives to the traditional model have continued to be disallowed, starved of funds, or relegated to second-class status.

Critics of the current curriculum tend to focus on its irrelevance for employment, and advocate a more vocational focus. Supporters of the status quo fall back on to the generic skills that such an education provides, irrespective of the actual jobs that students go on to do. But a few idealists still fly the flag of liberal education – defined by its breadth (including science as well as arts and humanities) and pursued for its own sake.

Liberal education for all is an admirable aim. Traditional English education might be academic and general, but is it really liberal? Possibly until age 16, but hardly ever thereafter.

In the United States, the prestigious path through higher education is defined by four-year degree courses, and students are not expected to specialise at the outset. This route is being threatened by the felt need (especially in the context of cripplingly high tuition fees) to embark early on potentially more remunerative routes, such as business studies.

Students entering English universities have mostly already chosen their specialism. While they may not be narrowly vocational, such specialisms are tightly focused in subject terms, and as such they certainly do not constitute a liberal education. English universities do not see their role as providing a broadly-based education.

Those who value liberal education must look to the secondary sector to provide it. But beyond 16, students are expected to choose a small number of (usually cognate) subjects for specialist study. For the vast majority of students, the formal study of whole fields of knowledge ends abruptly.

The aims and values of liberal education subsist in the curriculum shadows, well out of the glare of examinations, and of no particular interest to university admissions tutors. This is a great shame.

In a recent book, Fareed Zakaria adumbrated the benefits of a broadly-based liberal education. In his view, curriculum breadth, “may not help make a living, but it will help make a life.”

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust 

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